Counter-Terrorism: Better Living Through Chemistry

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October 15, 2008:  The UN, NATO and the United States are cooperating to shut down Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan by taking away a major source of income; profits from the heroin trade. It's all a matter of upsetting the processing of the annual production of 10,000 tons of opium (worth about $45 a pound) to 1,300 tons of heroin (worth about $1,600 a pound). This requires 2,600 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical. This is a clear liquid that is flammable and poisonous if you inhale it. The key to crippling the Taliban money machine is intercepting the chemical needed to convert opium into heroin.

There is no legal use for acetic anhydride inside Afghanistan. With bribes and transportation costs, the drug gangs pay about $2,000 per ton to get it to Pakistan. Then it has to be smuggled into Afghanistan, by truck. There are a limited number of roads, with the border manned by guards who are accustomed to being bribed. There are several other chemicals needed to refine the opium (to morphine, then to heroin), but acetic anhydride is the hardest to get, and the one needed in the largest quantities. Smaller quantities of hydrochloric acid are also needed, but this is a more common industrial chemical. Pakistan drove the heroin trade out in the 1990s, in part, by interfering with the supply of acetic anhydride. While there was a market for opium, it was mainly local, and the large amount of opium available drove the price down. The real money was in heroin, where smaller, more valuable amounts, were easier to move out of the country to more lucrative markets in the Persian Gulf, Europe and North America.

Now, consider how heroin fits into the worldwide drug market. The most widely used drug is actually marijuana (and it's refined version, hashish). There are about 170 million users of these products worldwide. Many live in rural areas where marijuana grows wild and legal restrictions are not energetically enforced. But in many urban areas, marijuana is a major source of income for gangsters, and some terrorist groups. Not as profitable as cocaine and heroin, and harder to smuggle (because of the bulk), but it is still a major threat because it has such a large market.

More debilitating drugs like heroin and cocaine are more expensive, more potent and have less than 20 percent of the market of marijuana and hashish. Cocaine and heroin are more likely to disable users, including much higher risk of accidental death. The 30 million cocaine or heroin users (about 60 percent of them prefer the less debilitating cocaine) are actually dwarfed by the slightly larger number of addicts for synthetic drugs (everything from methamphetamine to Ecstasy and especially prescription drugs). But cocaine and heroin come from farm crops (coca for cocaine, poppies for heroin) that are very profitable for poor farmers in places like the South American highlands (coca) or Central Asia (Afghanistan at the moment). In both these places, the illegal crops account for the majority of the supply for that illegal drug on the planet. In the case of cocaine, the drug is largely produced by gangsters, with some help from political outlaws (mostly leftist groups). There is some terrorism, but it is all local.

The big danger is the heroin trade, where Islamic terrorists have partnered with tribe based drug gangs to produce most of the world's heroin. This is nothing new. For decades after World War II, most of the heroin came   from the remote Burma (now Myanmar)-China border area. But both of those nations eventually cracked down on that business, and it moved to Pakistan for a while, but was forced, by a violent government reaction, across the border into Afghanistan. In both earlier cases, controlling the supply of acetic anhydride played a major role in crushing the heroin trade.

The Afghan government is reluctant to shut down the heroin trade, partly because many senior government officials are being bribed, and partly because it would cause more tribal warfare (most of the tribes oppose the heroin trade, and only a few of the Pushtun tribes in the south control most of the heroin production). Moreover, there is the likelihood that the poppy growing and heroin production would just move to another Central Asian nation. The Islamic terrorists would follow. So the problem really is to crush, or otherwise neutralize, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals who are sustaining their violence via drug profits.

It is interesting that the two major illegal drugs are both produced in small regions, areas that are dominated by outlaw armies and a general absence of law and order. Illegal empires for illegal drugs, and it's been that way for quite a while. In Afghanistan, NATO and U.S. commanders have finally convinced their governments to go after the money; the heroin trade.

That means manufacturers and distributors of acetic anhydride will soon come under scrutiny, and pressure to control the supply of the chemical entering Afghanistan. The chemical enters Afghanistan from all neighboring countries, except Iran (which has a small army of troops on the border trying to keep out the opium and heroin that supplies several million local addicts.) The acetic anhydride is often bought in Europe or Russia, labeled as some other product, and sent on its way to Pakistan or one of the Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan, where bribes or threats are used to get it into southern Afghanistan, where the processing labs are. This smuggling network is already under scrutiny, and soon it will be under major attack. And for the third time in the last few decades, the bulk of the heroin trade will be forced to find another home.

 


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